Washington, D.C. – “Follow the money.” That’s the famous advice that Deep Throat offered Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the film version of their Watergate book All the President’s Men. It’s good advice in sussing out what’s going to be happening in the swirling, often chaotic and confusing days ahead in the Paris climate talks.

The Paris confab takes place in a beautiful city drenched in a somber post-terrorist attack mood, depriving the media of a street circus planned by environmental activists, and myriad events scripted to advance economic and political interests of various stripes. Stripped of most street theater and much self-serving hype, what we will witness at the core is a tug-of-war over money. That was also a key to the failed Copenhagen talks six years ago.

In Denmark, the developed world promised the under-developed world large amounts of money in return for agreement on carbon dioxide reduction targets (note, it was for “targets,” not actual reductions, the same formulation that will pertain in Paris). When the rich nations promised the poor nations $100 billion in IOUs payable by 2020, the meeting adjourned with an entirely anodyne agreement that no serious analyst believed would be met. Copenhagen was widely and correctly seen as a fraud.

What happened to the promissory notes? Sure enough, as Michael Levi reports in a Council on Foreign Relations commentary, “But the world isn’t on track to meet the $100 billion goal.” By various accounts, the rich countries have only been able to pledge (and that doesn’t mean deliver) some $50-60 billion to the poor countries. They understand and won’t be hornswoggled again. On the other hand, the poor nations haven’t delivered on their reduction targets; few expected they would.

This time, the poor countries don’t want IOUs. In the words of future football Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss describing his financial management approach, it’s “straight cash, homey.”

I’m reminded of when I covered the third Law of the Sea treaty negotiations in the mid-1970s for Congressional Quarterly. Begun in 1973, the UN-brokered talks, the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference, hung up over the issue of moving cash to the less-developed countries from industrial economies who wanted approval to mine presumably lucrative ocean-floor minerals. The discussions stalled until 1982. The attempted shake-down failed.

A much scaled-back treaty didn’t come into force until 1994, by which time it was largely irrelevant. The U.S. is not a party to the treaty. No significant dollars changed hands from rich nations to poor. Seabed mining proved uneconomic.

Paris is likely to repeat that earlier course of international inaction. When the event ends, there may be much beating of chests and claiming victory all around. But little of significance is in the cards for an issue that relies on a dubious and fragile notion of muscular international coordination. That’s particularly true for an issue that, despite the hype, is hardly an existential threat to any nation.

I take guidance from Bjorn Lomborg, a skilled and sensible analyst whom climate activists loath for his clear-headedness. He recently looked at the nations’ large, self-proclaimed emissions reductions promised prior to the Paris policy parade (most of them unlikely to be achieved).


Lomborg concluded, “Even optimistically assuming that promised emission cuts are maintained throughout the century, the impacts are generally small.” The promises of emissions reductions that will be rolled out in Paris, he said, “will do little to stabilize the climate and their impact will be undetectable for many decades.”


Or, if you prefer, take heed from what quintessential climate activist and former NASA scientist Jim Hansen has to say: “Watch what happens in Paris carefully to see if all that the leaders do is sign off on the pap that UN bureaucrats are putting together, indulgences and promises to reduce future emissions, and then clap each other on the back and declare success.”


Hansen is scathing about the Obama administration’s pre-conference touting of a joint agreement with China to work on carbon capture and storage as evidence that Paris will be a success. “That spin is so gross,” he writes, “it is best described as unadulterated 100% pure bullshit.”

Will less-developed nations be able to extort cash from the rich to compensate for alleged, unquantifiable, future climate damages? In whose pockets might that hard currency eventually be found? The answer to those questions may be the real story of the 21st conference of the parties in Paris, continuing a consistent pattern of feckless, but expensive, climate hand-wringing and demands for more action, or surely more cash. Follow the money.